Top 25 Countdown: No. 13 Memphis Tigers

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-9, 13-3 C-USA (1st); Lost in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament to St. Louis

Head Coach: Josh Pastner

Key Losses: Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, Charles Carmouche

Newcomers: Shaq Goodwin, Geron Johnson, Damien Wilson, Anthony Cole

Projected Lineup:

G: Joe Jackson, Jr.
G: Chris Crawford, Jr.
F: Adonis Thomas, So.
F: Ferrakhon Hall, Sr.
C: Tarik Black, Jr.
Bench: Antonio Barton, Jr.; Shaw Goodwin, Fr.; Geron Johnson, Jr.; Stan Simpson, Sr.; DJ Stephens, Sr.

Outlook: For the past couple of seasons, this Memphis group has been overrated heading into the season. The junior class, the leaders of this team that also included Will Barton for the past two years, were young and overwhelmed as freshmen. They ended up making the NCAA tournament when Joe Jackson found his form in the Conference USA tournament and carried the Tigers to an automatic bid before nearly upsetting Arizona in the opening round.

Last season started out on the same note for Memphis, as they went 6-5 in their first 11 games of the season. But after an embarrassing loss to Georgetown in Washington DC, things changed. Pastner, who put together a pretty impressive coaching performance over the last three months of the season, got this group refocused and managed to win 20 of the last 23 games despite the fact that Jackson nearly transferred and Adonis Thomas missed a big chunk of with an injury. Memphis was picked by many pundits as a sleeper prior to the bracket being released, but they, again, lost in the opening round after getting slotted as a No. 8 seed and matched up with a very good St. Louis team.

So while I know that you’re probably getting tired of hearing it at this point, I think that this is the year that the Tigers break through.

First and foremost, I think it needs to be mentioned that the entire starting lineup I have listed above hails from Memphis. All five of them. And if you know anything about Memphis, you know that it’s a city that is crazy about their basketball. High school, college, NBA. So not only are these kids playing for their school and for their teammates, but they’re out there representing their city as well. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 20 year old — pressure that almost drove Jackson, who was labeled as the King of Memphis in high school, out of the program — but this is can no longer be called a young group. Four of the five are upperclassmen that have started at least one year in the program, while Thomas started as a freshman and, despite missing time with the injury, played in the NCAA tournament.

There are no more excuses to make.

Especially from a talent perspective.

Jackson and Thomas are the two studs. Coming out of White Station High, Jackson was a top 15 recruit that some thought had a chance to head off to the NBA after one season in college. That didn’t happen, but that doesn’t change the fact that the diminutive Jackson is a talented scorer and play-maker. Jackson actually benefited from the emergence of Chris Crawford, and to a lesser extent, Antonio Barton, taking over the point guard role, which allowed him to move off of the ball and focus less on running the offense and more on creating scoring opportunities.

Thomas is the guy on the roster most likely to eventually turn into a lottery pick. At 6-foot-7, 240 lb, he’s a powerful combo-forward who is still making the transition to being a full-time perimeter player. He hit a good percentage from three last season (40.5%), but only took 37 of them. It will be interesting to see how things like his handle and his mid-range game have improved, because he’s got the length, strength and athleticism to be an effective rebounder and finisher around the basket.

Given the hype he had coming in, Thomas had a bit of a disappointing freshman season, and it wasn’t solely the result of his injury. He wasn’t alone, either, as Tarik Black was expected by many to put together an all-conference caliber season. While he did finish the year averaging double-figures, Black never really became the kind of interior presence many thought he would be. Black and Thomas will be the difference-makers for Memphis. How well they perform will determine whether the Tigers are once again a tournament team or a legitimate contender to make a run to the Final Four.

In addition to being an experienced group, Pastner actually has quite a bit of depth at his disposal. Joining Thomas and Black on the front line will be the combination of Shaq Goodwin and Ferrakhan Hall. Hall was a bit of an unsung hero for the Tigers last season, giving them some energy and size in the paint, which was something they lacked a year ago. Goodwin will likely be the best option by the end of the season, however he is only a freshman. Another big body, Stan Simpson, will likely get a good amount of playing time as well.

The guy to keep an eye on in the back court is Geron Johnson. The JuCo transfer has had all kinds of legal issue early in his career, but he’s a former top 100 recruit that’s certainly talented and on his last chance to play at this level. He’s a risk, but he’s got a nice upside if everything goes right.

Predictions?: I don’t think it’s even a question that Memphis is the favorite in Conference USA, but at this point, Memphis fans have got to be fed up with simply being the best team in a league that seemingly gets worse by the day. Memphis wants to be a national program, and, as such, they want to see evidence of that in March. They want to see a win over a top 25 program. For the first time in his Memphis tenure, Pastner has a group that can be classified as both talented and experienced. And, for arguably the first time in his career, Pastner can be termed “experienced” as a head coach. I can see this group being a first round flameout again, but I can also see them putting it all together and making a run to the Final Four.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Osun Osunniyi picks St. Bonaventure over Syracuse, Georgetown

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St. Bonaventure has made something of a late splash on the recruiting trail.

Osun Osunniyi, a 6-foot-10 from Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy, signed with the Bonnies, the school announced Monday.

It’s a bit of a recruiting coup for coach Mark Schmidt, who won the services of Osunniyi over offers from Syracuse and Georgetown, both of whom hosted the prospect on official visits this spring.

“Osun oozes with potential. His ceiling is extremely high. He has so much God-given ability,” Schmidt said in a statement. “And, he’s a great kid, a character kid who is level-headed. He has a great wingspan, he runs well, he has a natural talent for blocking shots and is a very good rebounder. He can score around the basket.

“Osun wants to get better, like all of our players. We saw how he developed at Putnam, which is a credit to coach Espinosa and the staff there. He’s come a long way to become a kid who was highly recruited. We’re thrilled to have him come to St. Bonaventure.”

Osunniyi, who previously committed to La Salle before taking a prep year, becomes the fourth member of the Bonnies’ 2018 freshman class. He averaged 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots per game while Putnam won a national prep championship.

The Bonnies made the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed last year after going 26-8.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.